After the U.S. secretary of agriculture this month offered a pessimistic outlook on the future of small dairy farms, many North Dakota and Minnesota leaders went about reaffirming their support for farm country.
During a visit to Wisconsin earlier this month, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue expressed doubts that family dairy farmers have an economically viable model in the short-term — pointing out that small-time farmers will struggle against large rivals that benefit from an economy of scale.
"In America, the big get bigger and the small go out," Perdue said, according to widely reported remarks. "I don't think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability."
The comments were rankling for some — notably the Minnesota Farmers Union, whose president, Gary Wertish, released a statement shortly after criticizing the agriculture secretary.
“It’s incredibly frustrating to hear things like this from someone who’s supposed to represent all family farmers,” Wertish said. “The ‘get big or get out’ business philosophy hasn’t worked. Rather it has caused consolidation in the agriculture industry that’s driven too many family farmers off the farm and hurt rural communities.”
The comments also come in the midst of a trade war with China that’s grown to involve many farmers’ bottom lines. Nancy Johnson, executive director of the North Dakota Soybean Growers Association, said in August that a significant amount of North Dakota’s soybean crop previously “went directly or indirectly to China,” and expressed frustration on behalf of farmers that “they are the weapon that is being used by the Chinese” in the trade spat.
There’s a bright spot this week, though, with news that China bought more soybeans and pork ahead of scheduled trade meetings. News also broke on Friday that President Donald Trump had suspended a $250 billion tariff hike that was expected to take effect on Tuesday, with Chinese ag buying expected to increase soon as well.
Though North Dakota has notably lost many dairy farms in recent years — going from about 350 in 2000 to 91 in 2015, according to the Associated Press — the Herald asked North Dakota and Minnesota leaders what conclusions agricultural leaders should draw from Perdue’s comments.
The staff of Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., referred the Herald to her remarks on Twitter: “We should be supporting small farmers and producers and celebrating their importance to our economy, not telling them the only pathway to success is … giving up,” Smith said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a fellow Minnesota Democrat, also affirmed support for local farmers, calling them “the lifeblood of rural communities,” according to a statement provided by her presidential campaign.
“In the Senate, I've worked to pass legislation supporting family dairy farmers and as president, I will immediately address the dairy crisis as part of my comprehensive approach to strengthening our agricultural industry,” she said.
The office of U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., did not respond to the Herald’s request for comment.
In North Dakota, Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican, expressed sympathy for “our smaller producers,” pointing out that larger-scale farms have the resources to “better weather challenges.” He also mentioned his work on Senate committees, where he said he’s “doing all I can to help all of our producers to succeed.”
Likewise for Rep. Kelly Armstrong, a fellow North Dakota Republican.
“Dairy farmers are going through a difficult time with low milk prices, high cost of doing business, and international trade barriers making it harder to make ends meet. That’s why it’s important for Congress to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement so they can have a level playing field and better access to foreign markets
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., praised Perdue for his candor.
“There is great integrity in Secretary Perdue’s truthfulness” he said. “Being told what you want to hear leads only to temporary satisfaction.”